A bridge too far for Avram?

February 26, 2008
By Dale Johnson
(Archive)

Just seven days ago you may have believed Chelsea had found a new messiah in Avram Grant. Blinded by a hugely impressive run of form in the Premier League and accepting club spin of a bright new future with exciting attacking football, Jose Mourinho's name was being taken in vain.

Avram Grant
GettyImages / PhilColeAvram Grant attempt to change things at Wembley by barking instructions to Didier Drogba

Some fans were even phoning into national radio debates hailing the Israeli as the better coach. There are two important distinctions here. Firstly, Mourinho had to build the foundations on which Grant can now work and secondly victories are hollow at a club such as Chelsea without trophies.

On the surface Grant would appear to be a superb replacement. A record of 24 wins in 35 matches is admirable coupled with the fact that they sit third in the Premier League, are in the last eight of the FA Cup and are expected to reach the same stage in the Champions League.

But is Grant a 'big game manager'? The evidence would suggest not.

While Mourinho did not lose a single Cup final with Chelsea (he had the same record with FC Porto) Grant has failed at the first opportunity in the Carling Cup, coincidentally the same competition which opened the Portuguese's account.

The questions over Grant's suitability for the job go further. Mourinho also had a superb record in games now dubbed 'grand slam' fixtures which also feature Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal; only time will tell whether the TV broadcaster in England will have to re-brand that to include Everton next season.

Chelsea have failed to beat Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool in the league under Grant, picking up just the one point; last season they lost just one of their six 'grand slam' meetings. It's crucial to give up minimal ground to your closest rivals in head-to-heads.

The Carling Cup final defeat to Tottenham at the weekend now threatens to bring the house of cards crashing down and Grant's authority is increasingly being called into question.

His handling of the preparation for the final has been brought into focus this week with the revelation that captain John Terry and assistant first team coach Henk Ten Cate came to blows on the training ground, with friction surrounding Grant's decision to keep team selection under wraps.

That situation had been created by the boss' decision to leave both Terry and Frank Lampard, recently back from injuries, on the bench for the Champions League round of 16 clash at Olympiakos. A goalless draw in that match leaves Chelsea on perilous ground with the threat of an away goal for the Greek side a real danger.

After the training ground spat, Terry should have been omitted from the starting XI at Wembley, sending out a message to the whole squad. Instead he was back in the side.

The rest of his starting line-up was full of inconsistencies and confusion. Desperate to shoehorn in Anelka, Drogba and Lampard without deviating from his tried and tested 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 formation, all he succeeded in doing was to create a team without cohesion.

In contrast, Spurs were full of desire and organisation. They attacked as a unit and with purpose. Chelsea looked extremely one-dimensional.

Anelka was a lost soul out on the left wing and was not given the chance to forge a partnership with Drogba, with whom he had never started a match before.

Joe Cole, Michael Ballack
Empics / MikeEgertonJoe Cole and Michael Ballack were forced to watch much of the Wembley showpiece from the touchline

Even worse, it was Joe Cole, one of Chelsea's most consistent performers this term, who was sacrificed as part of a 'square plugs in round holes' operation. Cole, who missed last year's victory over Arsenal through injury, was bizarrely benched and not introduced until extra-time - by which time he played like he was still bemused at the original selection.

And with Michael Ballack, who finally appears to be proving his worth, also dropped to accommodate Lampard the whole team ethic generated in recent Premier League victories was ripped apart.

Was Ballack bothered by the decision? 'I was not on the team-sheet and that is it,' was his response. It hardly signals contentment.

Chelsea, of course, have been quick to point out that the Grant era has heralded a new attacking flavour. That was not in evidence for the first 15 minutes of the second half when they were only too happy to pass the ball around their defence and then back to Petr Cech. It was the kind of negativity which was often prevalent in a Mourinho side.

And when Spurs did bring the scores level, Grant was too slow to switch things and change the flow of the game. Cole was left on the bench for too long and, if he was to persevere with the formation, Anelka should have been sacrificed.

Juande Ramos, of course, took the step of removing Pascal Chimbonda and introducing Teemo Tainio which enabled them to break up Chelsea's hopes of putting the game to bed.

If the case against Grant seems superfluous, the pictures of Terry giving the team talk prior to the start of the additional 30 minutes hardly helps. It again leaves questions about who the players look to for inspiration, leadership and direction. Perhaps it is Terry who is able to provide that and not the man paid to fill the role.

Terry's attempts to play down both incidents have not put the matter to the bed as his attempts at placating the media scrum have at best been mediocre.

As per usual, Chelsea failed to take defeat with grace and harried referee Mark Halsey at the final whistle over his performance and in particular his decision to end the match just as Salomon Kalou was bursting through on goal. 'How can the referee decide whether there should be one or two seconds more? Very disappointing,' said Grant. It's not that hard to understand, Avram.

The Carling Cup final presented Grant with the chance to silence any doubters and open his trophy account at Stamford Bridge. Instead it has raised questions of both infighting and his ability to take the club forward. Who says Cup finals are always something to savour?

  • Any thoughts? Then you can e-mail Dale Johnson.